In Defense of (the Original) James T. Kirk

LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 28: William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk in the STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES episode, 'The Cloud
LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 28: William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk in the STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES episode, 'The Cloud Minders.' Season 3, episode 21. Original air date, February 28, 1969. Image is a frame grab. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Those of you who've read my earlier posts have probably noticed that sometimes I get a little overwhelmed by writing about horrendous things like the state of the world and, instead, choose to type up a little something nice about some entertainer or artist who I think has been unfairly maligned. Today, I honestly feel that things are so dreadful that I must turn my praise to the world of fiction... science fiction, even. Yes, I am here now to defend the reputation -- nay, honor -- of a true American hero: Captain James T. Kirk.

Tonight, Star Trek Into Darkness will open in theaters around the country. A few months back I saw the first nine minutes when they were previewed before The Hobbit. (Warning, spoilers to follow for those who haven't seen the preview.) Those nine minutes played out a little something like this: Sherlock basically says to someone, "Hey, I'm totally Khan and I'll save someone you care about if you help me do something evil." Elsewhere, Kirk saves Spock's life by breaking the Prime Directive and Spock is like, "Kirk, I would not save your life if it meant breaking the rules," and Kirk is all, "I know." Yes, it's all very subtle. So, basically, it isn't looking so good for ol' Jimmy boy in the coming Marvel What-If take on Wrath of Khan. But, I could be wrong. Maybe any foreshadowing that obvious, released months before the full film, must actually be a giant red herring present only in the preview. You think? I honestly hope it isn't that predictable.Okay, no more preview spoilers beyond this point, I promise.

My real problem with the rebooted Trek, though, is that the major characters too often feel more like impressions than interpretations. Don't get me wrong: I'm not here to hate. Chris Pine was a fantastic choice and the first film's screenplay was pretty damn good, as far as action movies go. But the J.J. Abrams Kirk is the Kirk of parody: Kirk the womanizer, Kirk the rule-flouting powder keg, Kirk the prideful egomaniac. Kirk the caricature. It works in a broad sense because that's the idea of Kirk that people who've never actually seen Star Trek have imprinted in their minds. In fact, the 2009 film had to give Kirk an entirely new backstory to comport the original series' "absolutely grim" cadet taunted by classmates into line with the devil-may-care party boy the wider audience would expect.

Kirk's reputation as the premier choice in vicarious living probably owes much to Shatner's, shall we say, energetic performance. After all, he's a Shakespearean actor who claims to have "five times the dopamine" level of the average human being. If he could sing, a guy like that could ask for non-dairy creamer and make it sound like the fourth act of Aida.

That's exactly how it should be, of course. It couldn't have worked without him. Star Trek was a space opera, after all, in which characters spouted nonsensical technobabble surrounded by colorful blinking lights and go-go aliens with wild hairdos. Any actor had to be larger-than-life or they'd have looked lost on the stage. Shatner was dropped in this setting with George Takei's dignified swashbuckler, Nichelle Nichols' effortlessly ideal woman, James Doohan's faux but earnest Scotsman, Walter Koenig's Soviet Beatle, DeForest Kelly's passionate country doctor and Leonard Nimoy's ultimate, alien nerd and told to be the star. That's... that's a tall order, my friends. Throw a bevy of one- and two-dimensional guest stars that way and things are bound to get a little intense now and then.

But, in word and deed, the Kirk of the original series was, essentially, a modern, mature Horatio Hornblower: an adventurer and military man, yes, but primarily a diplomat responsible for representing his people far away from home. His role as diplomat applied at every level of the drama, really. In the Freudian trinity that was Kirk/Spock/McCoy, Kirk was tasked most weeks with balancing McCoy's passion and Spock's logic. Yes, I am aware which portion of the psyche that would make him and, no, I'm not going to say it.

Okay, that's probably not all popcorn movie material, but on the original series, it was excuse enough for women to constantly throw themselves at Shat. After all, it was the '60s and an adventure show and that's just what guest stars did. There's simply no denying that the good captain had game. But was he really such a player? Kirk (shrewd diplomat that he was,) very often parlayed female affection into vital information or aid, which was, well, using them. But he didn't often actually bed them to get it, because of network censors and the fact that his mama didn't raise him that way. If anything, Captain Kirk was a big ol' space tease. If he were a woman, we'd probably call him empowered.

Alright, alright, there was Marlena Moreau, but what happens in the Mirror Universe stays in the Mirror Universe, amirite? And then there was Miramanee, but he made an honest space-Indian priestess of her and the less that is said about the specifics of the third season, the better.

Kirk also knew long before the phrase "sexual harassment" entered the vernacular not to fool around with women under his command, no matter how much they might want his sweet, sweet captain's seat. Recall the trials of poor, lovelorn Yoeman Rand. And I'm pretty sure that's what we were supposed to take away from this scene involving one of her successors. It isn't what we actually get from it, but it was supposed to be. And when Kirk's mind is probed for the woman foremost in his thoughts in Plato's Stepchildren, the aliens find not some random mini-skirt but Uhura, a woman he respects and has never shown any overt sexual interest in.

She'd have been his type, though. On those rare occasions when he did express real interest in a woman, she was usually an intelligent, independent, well-rounded character like Edith Keeler, Janet Wallace or Carol Marcus. He was also repeatedly shown to be on good terms with exes, so it's hard to imagine he was anything less than a gentleman. Well, okay, Janice Lester killed a bunch of people and briefly snatched his body, but who doesn't have that one ex from Hell? And again: third season.

I would like to take this moment to acknowledge that, yes, I know this is all exceedingly nerdy. But you're the one reading a blog post about Star Trek.

Sadly (and on a much more serious note,) Kirk's history with fictional women is far better than Star Trek's history with real ones. Grace Lee Whitney says she left the original series after being sexually assaulted by someone involved in the production. No one seems to know what was going on during the second season of The Next Generation, except that Gates McFadden and Diana Muldaur were both treated very badly. Same deal with Terry Farrell on Deep Space Nine. And Jennifer Lein on Voyager. To the casual observer, James T. Kirk looks like Gloria freakin' Steinem compared to the producers of Star Trek.

Then there is Kirk's reputation for bending the rules. This is strange, because he's a big ol' '60s square in the original series. When and whether Kirk ever violated the Prime Directive in the classic series is a topic of heated fanboy debate, probably because the rule wasn't created until 20 episodes into the first season, wasn't defined until 25 episodes into the second season and, well... third season. It's hard to write a character who plays by or breaks rules you haven't written yet.

We have to blame the films, really. Wrath of Khan makes a major point of the fact that Kirk, as a cadet, re-wrote a computer program to make a "no-win situation" winnable. The film is about Kirk facing mortality, so it made sense to give him a history of literally cheating his way out of confronting the concept. Then, in Search for Spock, Kirk stole the Enterprise from dry dock. But, hey, the '60s were over; Spock wasn't going to search for himself.

More distressing to fans of the original series -- and thankfully not present in the first Abrams film -- is the popular image of Kirk the shoot first, ask questions later warrior who is deeply distrustful of other races, which is just... wow. I have no idea where people are getting that, aside, again, from perhaps Shatner's energy level. It just couldn't possibly be further from the (completely fictional) truth. In Balance of Terror, the first episode to really show us Kirk's skill in battle, he is reluctant to attack the enemy even as Spock urges aggression. Time and again in the original series we see Kirk carry trust and goodwill longer than he reasonably might in dealing with hostile forces.

Again, over-generalization based on the film series might be to blame for this one. The Undiscovered Country brought Kirk to the point of unconscionably callous racism toward former enemies, in a beat that Shatner was famously tricked into filming. But even that was presented as an extremely out-of-character moment in a film that ends with the captain physically embracing a former enemy.

Many of these misconceptions seem born from an early contrast with Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard, who ironically enough is actually portrayed as a reckless youth who grows up to be caught violating the Prime Directive nine times in less than four seasons. (I like to imagine some admiral yelling, "One more time, Picard, and I'm writing you up!")

But the overall tone of TNG was a kinder, gentler Star Trek, as much a product of the '80s as the original was of the 60s. Take, for example, Picard's decision not to deploy cyber-warfare against cybernetic organisms, after much soul-searching, even in the face of an existential threat to his entire species. This probably explains why all the French people in the 24th century have English accents. Though it doesn't explain why Counselor Troi is the only member of her family with an Israeli one...

Essentially, Star Trek: The Next Generation was a show about a group of privileged people who flew to less fortunate worlds, got all preachy in the locals' faces, then refused to help the minorities. This compulsion might explain why they needed a therapist on the bridge, even though not one of the characters seemed even remotely interesting enough to need one. If you've never seen it and are wondering how this formula managed to work, why the hell are you reading this? And it's because they had top notch writing in seasons three through seven and an incredible cast throughout. I mean, Patrick Stewart.

In fact, it was probably television's finest drama several of the years it was on the air and that isn't even an exaggeration. Of course, it was also the '80s and '90s, so it's not like they were besting Mad Men. That pre-Sopranos TV wasteland really sucked. The very fact that TNG survived episodes like Angel One, Code of Honor, Up the Long Ladder and The Royale to get a third season tells us how low the bar was. But, those good years still hold up, and that's saying something.

It's also certainly a better formula than, say, Voyager, which was a show about a group of people who got stuck on the other side of the galaxy because it took them seven years to remember that time bombs were a thing. Even Kate Mulgrew and Raoul can't sell that, man. On the plus side, unlike Picard, Mulgrew's Janeway was willing to occasionally go all Laura Roslin on some Borg ass.

Deep down, we can't really blame Picard for not wanting to kill Hugh the Borg, though. He was pretty cute. What? I was barely twelve! Goth was in! Eye patches are hot! Who are you to judge me! Also, Picard totally had this amazing heart-to-heart with the ship's bartender. Eh, you had to be there.

Still, cute goth garbage pirate not, one suspects that Kirk would have wiped out the Borg if given the chance. And why not? Janeway certainly did. Sisko would have, and Deep Space Nine was probably Star Trek's finest hour, even with all that awful Pah-wraith bullshit. Archer would have. (Admit it: you forgot about Archer and for just a moment you thought I was talking about that perfect, beautiful cartoon... which would make an awesome lead-in to Futurama, by the way.) The Picard in First Contact sure as hell would have. If you compare anyone to a PC-era vision of the Utopia-born leading man, they're going to come up looking like a barbarian, James T. Kirk included.

But, this is not the standard by which all fictional 23rd century starship captains should be judged. Is not, I say! (If you could do me a solid and clench your fist defiantly while reading that line, I'd really appreciate it.)

Ultimately, though, I think that Kirk's good name has been most tarnished by his own success. It's hard to be popular and keep your reputation, as so many of us have learned the hard way. We imagine him bedding the women he refused, firing the phasers he didn't and throwing the punches he held, because we wish he had, because he looked so damn cool when he did. Those are the moments that left an impression, so those are the moments we're reliving now, in J.J. Abrams' parallel universe. No one wants to remember, for instance, that last time he saved the universe then died because a catwalk falls apart.

If there can be a last time, that is. He's also been spotted living outside of time with Picard and Guinan (because: space opera,) so one imagines he could pop out at literally any and every moment the studio so desires, looking like William Shatner, Chris Pine or a CG model. You can kill James T. Kirk, but you can't expect him to stay dead.